Art vs. the Assembly Line

Julian JohnsonCorrespondent IJune 11, 2009

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 17:  A general view of the closed centre court roof during the Mixed Doubles match of Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf against Tim Henman and Kim Clijsters during the 'Centre Court Celebration' at Wimbledon on May 17, 2009 in London, England.  (Photo by AELTC/Pool/Getty Images)

The words of Margaret Smith Court, calendar Grand Slam winner in 1970, struck me recently as I pondered their implications:

Although she no longer played, Smith Court still followed tennis, particularly the Grand Slams. She commented that many women players of the 21st century were "robots," according to John Thirsk in the Surry Hills, Australia Sunday Telegraph.

She said this was the result of rigid coaching schemes, and also noted that the young women "lacked hunger because many were simply content to play for a comfortable living rather than chase major honors," according to Thirsk.

Smith Court told Vivienne Oakley in the Adelaide, Australia Advertiser that she believed Australia could produce more champions by returning to individual coaching:

"I think we put our people into squads too young and champions are very sensitive people. I believe we lose them in the squads at a very early age."

She said she never would have become a champion if she had come through the modern coaching system, noting, "I had good mentors. Sometimes I played and won for them, not myself." And, she told Thirsk, "I've seen what happened with some others way back, who had been promising, winning national junior titles. They had individual coaches and because they were good, went into a squad. You've never heard about them again."

Tennis is ugly, let's face it. Back in the day, players didn't come from warehouses, packaged, stamped and branded, with the same forehand, same two handed backhand, bludgeoning the ball similarly and with identical patterns of play. 

There was a time in tennis when players were like jazz musicians: as soon as you saw them, you knew who it was. They had a unique style, cultivated by their coach, but born in the imagination and experience of the player, her or himself.

When you hear one note of Miles you know who it is; when you see one snippet of a film clip of Rocket Rod Laver, you know exactly who he is. Can you tell the difference between Berdych and Querry, Chela and Karlovic and Isner?

I step into my time machine to ponder what has been lost in the transition to a tennis factory mentality:

Frankie Durr and her funky grips, her shoveled backhand...Evonne Goolagong, the ballerina, the fairy floating above the court, scooping graceful forehands and backhands from the backcourt, gliding to the net, tapping passing shots gently into the open court...

Nastase the magician, the profane genius, the Federer of his day, no shot impossible, not an inch of the court unreachable by the mere flick of his fluid wrist...Laver, he of the Popeye forearm, the master of spins, the extreme top and the Thanksgiving carved slice, athletic, powerful, humble...

Rosewall, the greatest slice backhand ever(?), Newcombe's serve, Smith's determination, Vilas the bull from the baseline, Virginia Wade, the serve and volleyer carrying the weight of England, Ashe the cool, bespeckled slasher/tactician, Billie Jean King, the fierce competitor.

I could describe the players I grew up watching for days. And their games were a reflection of their personalities. Today's players have generic games born of the idea that "if it works with widgets, it can work with backhands." We've lost something in tennis, just as we have in music.

Uniformity has brought improvement, a perfection of sorts. Surely, the athlete of 2009 is far superior to his 1960's counterpart, due mainly to improvements in training methodology, diet, etc. And of course, the technology has changed the game dramatically...but is it for the better?!

Who really wants to see all the "Dolly the sheep-clones" clogging the tennis circuit upon graduation from the "high performance" facilities the USTA claims are the answer to the American tennis drought?!

I'd rather a drought than fifteen or twenty more Roddicks.

To be yourself, to survive all of the regimentation and pressure to conform in society and to actually play yourself on the horn or with a tennis racket...this is one of the highest art forms.

Seriously. What a breath of fresh air it is to have a Carla Suarez Navarro among the new breed, with a game that is interesting, creative, different.

I'm with Margaret Court and with Billie Holiday: It ain't real tennis and it ain't real jazz if everybody is doing it the same, warmed over, imitative way. Give me Frankie Durr and her hitch-filled, travesty of a game, over a hundred academy mannequins—any day.